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Old-fashioned service

Booths is a chain of supermarkets in the North-West of England that is in its fifth generation. The company prides itself on customer service, the high quality of its produce – much of it local – and its strong regional identity, writes Emma French

Booths, the family-owned regional retailer with stores across the North of England, has a long-established reputation as 'the supermarket that cares' – not only about its customers but about its suppliers too. Therefore it came as no surprise when company chairman Edwin Booth – the fifth generation of the Booth family – was made a regional Ambassador for the North-West by The Prince of Wales earlier this year as part of Business in the Community's National Awards for Excellence, which recognises companies that have a high standard in the way they operate and have had a positive impact on society. So what makes this family business so successful?

Since June 1847, five generations of the Booth family have led E H Booth & Co Ltd from its humble beginnings as one small shop, to its current position as a leading regional retailer, with 26 stores across the four counties of Lancashire, Cheshire, Yorkshire and Cumbria.

The Booths story began when tea dealer Edwin Henry Booth opened his first store, the China House, in Blackpool at the tender age of 19. With an entrepreneurial spirit and a simple approach to retail – "to sell the best goods available in attractive stores staffed with first class assistants" – Edwin soon expanded. New outlets opened in Chorley, Lytham and Blackburn which, as well as the traditional teas, also sold an extensive selection of groceries, Italian delicacies, wines and spirits.
 
Booths' innovative approach to retailing was continued by Edwin's successor, John Booth, who capitalised on a trend of the day with the launch of in-store cafes in 1902 – a tradition that is still carried on in many of Booths stores today.

After the First World War a third generation, under the leadership of Major "Wyn" Booth, continued the company's expansion in the North West with new stores in Leyland, St Anne's and Southport, resulting in a strong increase in turnover.
 
In the 1950s, Booths was quick to adapt and respond to changing consumer trends. The company embraced the new phenomenon of self-service in 1962, and all 14 stores were converted into supermarkets. For its time this was a radical approach to retailing as supermarkets were virtually unheard of outside London.

In 1997, the fifth generation of the Booth family took up the reins when Edwin John Booth (pictured), the great, great grandson of the original Edwin, took over as chairman of the company.

Under his leadership, Booths has continued to grow – turnover has increased from £121 million to £190 million in the past four years and profits have grown to £4.7 million. There are now 26 stores in the North West spreading from Knutsford to Keswick, as well as the recently opened specialist Artisan store in Kendal.
 
Situated under the main Booths store in Kendal, Artisan champions passionate local people who are truly committed to producing quality crafted and specialist foods. "Artisan was an exciting move for us – and a first in the supermarket industry. It's the first time that small producers who don't supply a supermarket chain are able to showcase their products in one place", comments Edwin Booth.
 
The Artisan restaurant also provides customers with the opportunity to taste regional and seasonal products. Booths employed the services of renowned chef, Stephen Doherty to create an inspiring menu for the launch of the restaurant, featuring local cheeses, fish, meats and puddings. The success of the restaurant is now in the hands of chef Alan Barrow.
 
Alan said: "The menus change to reflect the seasons and new products as they come on-stream, but always promotes top quality, local food. Our objective is to ensure our customers taste the freshest food possible from the region."
 
Edwin continues: "We have been supporting our local producers as a matter of course for over 150 years. This sourcing strategy helps to give Booths a strong point of difference from its competitors and Booths will continue to lead the market with its unique approach to innovation and local sourcing. Whilst striving to expand Booths is mindful of the importance of helping contribute to the local rural economy in which it operates.
 
"Go into any Booths store and you will find the shelves stacked with products unique to that area: Morecombe Bay potted shrimps, Salt Marsh Lamb, Samphire are just a few examples, " continues Edwin. " The relationships that we have with our suppliers are long-standing and go back several years. Many of our buyers have been with us for over 10 years so their level of expertise and local knowledge is top-notch."

"Take Bowland Fresh Milk for instance," explains Edwin. "This started as an initiative by the farmers themselves, who approached Booths with the Bowland Fresh Milk concept. The milk comes only from 15 specially selected farms in the Forest of Bowland, which is a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. It is collected every day in its own tanker for bottling at a dedicated local centre and distributed to Booths stores.

"When we started our original discussions, the farmers were hit by foot and mouth disease – which affected each and every one of them very badly. Despite all this, they kept going and are the real drivers of this project. They receive a higher premium for their milk than they would on the commercial market. We have worked closely together on the processing, bottling and branding, as well as the promotion of the product. "What is really rewarding for us is to be able to ensure that a decent proportion of the price is reflected in the amount that reaches the individual producer."

William Slinger, of Dickenson Farm, one of the farms involved, is quick to support Booths: "The deal with Booths effectively means that, when people buy our milk, we will be 10% -15% better off than if we had sold the milk on the open market.

This can be ploughed back into effective land management in this area – keeping it beautiful for locals and visitors alike. Internally, Booths aim to provide a seamless quality of operation, which recognises people both at team and individual level as human beings. While this style of business might be perceived as being soft, it delivers hard results in terms of customer satisfaction.

Most importantly Booths has always had a very clear idea of what makes a regional supermarket so vital to its local community – the quality of the product range and excellent customer service. These values and beliefs still remain today and are the key to its success in a highly competitive marketplace. 

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